Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Bedlamite's Own Ethics II: Morality as Oppression

One important thing to keep in mind when examining or devising a code of ethics is that ethics can often serve as a means of enforcing existing power structures. History and law, it is famously said, are written by the winners, and they often serve the purpose of making sure the winners stay winners.

The following material is flagged Yellow Level. It contains material that is disputed by some experts but accepted by others. Caution is advised when deciding whether you personally choose to believe it.
Let us examine a famous case of this: that of Genesis 9:25. In the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis, it is commanded that the sons of Canaan serve the sons of his brothers and cousins, because of the (unspecified) actions of his father Ham. It is difficult to believe that there were no Canaanites who thought, "hey, why are we doing this? We can see that the sons of Israel are free, and we are not; why shouldn't we be free?". And at some point, our theoretical slave mentions this within earshot of his master. And the master drags him before the temple leadership. And the priest hears both sides of the case. And then the priest carefully consults the Books. And then the priest mentions the "Cursed be Canaan" line. And who is a mere human to question the word of God (well, Noah actually, who was speaking for God at that point)?

In fact, it's not difficult to imagine that a slightly-less-than-ethical priest added the story when facing that exact situation shortly after the Israelites raided Canaan.

From a memetic perspective, the morality promoted by a society is simply a memeplex that dictates a set of "Thou Shalt"s and "Thou Shalt Not"s. Memes that lead to a more effective society ("thou shalt not kill", "thou shalt breed") survive, while memes that lead to a less effective society ("thou shalt steal", "thou shalt not go to war") are rejected. But these memes are rules handed down from an authority, and as such tend to have their own rules mixed in that serve no purpose but to cement the existing power structure.

Thou Shalt Not Hold Controversial Opinions.
Thou Shalt Not Rebel Against Thine Betters.
Thou Shalt Know Thy Place.
Thou Shalt Obey Thy Superiors.

This is not to say, of course, that all of a code handed down from an authority figure is wrong. But one must ask: is this rule in place because it helps society function better, or because it keeps those at the top on top? (And, for that matter, should the society in question continue to function, if it needs that rule to exist; but that is a question for another time.)

There are a few solutions to this problem.

One is Kant's Categorical Imperative. Kant proposed that one "should only act by that maxim that one would accept as a universal rule"; that is, act only in a given manner if one would allow others to act in the same manner. That is, there is one set of rules, and those rules apply equally to everyone. There are problems with this, though: society may have imbalances that favor one group over another, even if the rules are the same. Personal circumstances may render one set of rules oppressive to one person that are trivial to another.

Another solution is to constantly re-examine the rules and their impacts. Keep an open mind, looking at ways that the rules might impact others.

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